Wednesday, March 28, 2007

As Nebraska goes, so goes the nation

If you’re looking for a bellwether state in the Iraq debate, consider Nebraska. Those cornhuskers live in the center of the national map, and their two senators – as evidenced by their actions yesterday - are living proof that opposition to President Bush’s open-ended war is now the centrist stance in American politics.

Without crucial assists from conservative Democrat Ben Nelson and maverick Republican Chuck Hagel, the narrowly Democratic Senate would have failed yesterday to set a troop withdrawal date. Their support proved pivotal – the final vote was 50 to 48 – thus enabling the Senate to rebuke Bush for the first time and declare that America should essentially end, next year, its combat mission in Iraq.

Hagel’s vote was not a total surprise, given his persistent attacks on Bush’s war policy, but when a Republican who represents Nebraska feels comfortable opposing the war, that should tell you something about grassroots sentiment in Nebraska. And the same holds true for Nelson, who was talking skeptically about a withdrawal timeline as recently as two weeks ago.

This is a state, after all, where half the voters are registered Republicans, and only 34 percent are registered Democrats; where Bush won 66 percent of the vote in 2004, and 62 percent of the vote in 2000; and where, in presidential elections going back half a century, Republican candidates have averaged 61.1 percent of the vote – the highest percentage of any state, with the exception of Utah’s 61.6. Indeed, Nebraskans have supported GOP candidates in every presidential election going back 70 years, with the sole exception of Barry Goldwater in 1964.

But, lest we forget, it was a congressman from Nebraska who signaled early Republican restiveness about Iraq, back in 2004. When eight-term House GOP member Doug Bereuter, a former U.S. army intelligence officer, announced he would not seek re-election that year, he took the occasion to lambaste the war. He did it the old-fashioned way, by writing a letter to his local Nebraska newspaper:

“Knowing now what I know about the reliance on the tenuous or insufficiently corroborated intelligence used to conclude that Saddam maintained a substantial WMD arsenal, I believe that launching the pre-emptive military action was not justified….I've reached the conclusion, retrospectively, now that the inadequate intelligence and faulty conclusions are being revealed, that all things being considered, it was a mistake to launch that military action, especially without a broad and engaged international coalition. The cost in casualties is already large and growing, and the immediate and long-term financial costs are incredible. Our country's reputation around the world has never been lower and our alliances are weakened. From the beginning of the conflict it was doubtful that we for long would be seen as liberators, but instead increasingly as an occupying force. Now we are immersed in a dangerous, costly mess and there is no easy and quick way to end our responsibilities in Iraq without creating bigger future problems in the region and, in general, in the Muslim world.”

One can argue, of course, that he bared his true feelings only because he was retiring, and that Nebraska voters in 2004 might not have appreciated such candor. But three years later, Hagel and Nelson have demonstrated, by their pivotal Senate decisions, that it’s probably not politically risky back home to take a public stance against the war.

And, Nebraska aside, that’s the centrist sentiment nationally. As always, the swing-voting independents are crucial in gauging the mood. In the latest poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 61 percent of independents support a troop withdrawal timeline, and 32 percent oppose (the overall electorate numbers are 59-33). Also, a plurality of independents – 41 percent – believe that the Democrats in Congress haven’t yet done enough to challenge Bush on the war; another 33 percent believe that the Democrats have done it “about right,” and only 20 percent say they’ve gone too far in challenging Bush. (Gallup, measuring support for a timeline, posted similar numbers the other day.)

Bush, as he indicated again this morning, will surely veto any bill with a timeline, triggering a confrontation with Congress over whether any strings should be attached to future troop funding. He will seek to paint the Democrats as wimps determined to sever all money to our “men and women in uniform,” and the Democrats don’t want to wear that label, because the same Gallup poll reports that a landslide majority does want the current troops to be funded.

But the Democrats are better positioned today, than ever before, to win the crucial PR battle with Bush, because most people are behind them. Politically speaking, this is ultimately a battle to shape public opinion for the 2008 election, and right now the Democratic congressional majority, as opposed to Bush, is clearly more in sync with the American center - as the two Nebraskans demonstrated yesterday.